Gateway: Living

Students on Key Peninsula correspond with pen pals in Africa

Walk in the Light International founder Katy Cornell poses with some children her nonprofit supports earlier this year in West Africa.
Walk in the Light International founder Katy Cornell poses with some children her nonprofit supports earlier this year in West Africa. Courtesy

At the Red Barn Youth Center in Key Center, I shared with young people an interesting presentation by Katy Cornell, president of Walk In The Light International.

Cornell is a 2007 South Kitsap High School graduate who got her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Northwest University in Kirkland. She earned her master’s in nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. After marrying her high school sweetheart Tom, and she went to Burkina Faso, West Africa, a land-locked country the size of Colorado located below the Sahara desert.

The couple went because their friend, Daniel Ouedraogo, an exchange student at Northwest University from Burkina Faso, shared information about conditions in his home country.

“He invited us to see how we might help,” said Cornell, who lives in Allyn. “While there, we learned what extreme poverty is — it broke our hearts. We knew we couldn’t return home and do nothing.”

Katy and Tom asked the people of Rialo, a village of about 2,500 people three hours northwest of the nation’s capitol, Ouagadougou, what their greatest need was.

“Their children had no access to education and without education they had no future,” Cornell said. “We decided to partner with village elders to build a school in Rialo, and Walk In The Light International was born.”

It took two years to build the first three-classroom school in Rialo.

“Instead of turning it over to the government, we felt we needed to partner with the community to run it so it could be the best school possible,” she said. “We realized that this was so much more than one project! It became our life passion, something to which we have dedicated our lives!”

Key Peninsula Middle School seventh-grader Sierra Miller-Donally said, “Katy Cornell wanted us to be pen pals for a kid in Burkina Faso. I wrote a letter to a girl named Berry and I told her about me and my looks and my dogs. I also told her that I have four dogs and gave her their names.”

Classmate Calley Laprath learned that “Africa people don’t really have water sources and that (Cornell) and her husband built the kids of Africa a school.”

To raise funds for the school project, the couple hosted car washes at A&W and Novus Glass in Port Orchard every Saturday, every weekend rain or shine for two summers starting in May through September, Cornell said.

“Some days we raised $300 others $500, but you do it enough times and some how you get to $30,000,” she said. “We also did a garage sale each summer at Christian Life Center, which let us do it for free, and we raised about $1,500 one year and $2,000 the next.”

While doing the car washes, both were full-time students and worked and did the fundraisers on weekends. They also raised money locally from individuals, Rotaries and churches.

“We buy all materials in country for two reasons: shipping is so expensive, and it helps the local economy to buy local and hire local,” she said.

KPMS eighth-grader Tara Manford wrote to her pen pal, “Hey Shenigua, It was so cool to write to you. I can’t wait to hear back from you. What do you do there, what do you like?” Tara added, “I like to dance. I do ballet. I go to a dance school. I have two dogs and four sisters and two brothers.”

Classmate Alex Reeves was appalled to learn, “They have to drink muddy water!”

Sixth-grader Jonathan Christiansen thinks: “(Cornell’s presentation) was fun and I think that it would be cool to write to another country.”

Said Cornell, “We also formed a board of four couples plus us and each gave all we could give each month. Even though we were in school, Tom and I gave every extra dollar we had to see the school built. I would say building the school overall was a miracle. It doesn’t make sense, but some how it got built one cement brick at a time, literally!”

KPMS sixth-grader Makayla Hansen wrote, “When I was pen-palling, it felt awkward. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to know everything about them but I knew nothing except their name and age. I didn’t know anything about them, so I asked questions.”

That’s what it’s all about, Makayla.

“We learned that without looking at the community as a whole and addressing all the issues, the chains of poverty would not be broken,” said Cornell. “For example, having the school is amazing; however, if kids are always dehydrated, malnourished and sick, they do not excel. If their parents, barely surviving, need their kids to work for them in the fields and gather water, then they can’t go to school. In time, WILTI formed into a community development organization, tackling every angle of poverty to transform each village and the entire country of Burkina Faso. Our vision is to see healthy, sustainable communities thriving and producing the next generation of leaders.”

“What I learned from Katy was awesome,” said Zoey Lee Hulse, a seventh-grader at KPMS. “She taught us a lot about how she built schools for the kids.”

Hulse’s classmate wrote to pen pal Richard, “Hello. My name is Carly Clemo. I am in the seventh grade. I live in Washington state. I go to (KPMS). How’s it going so far? I wanna know. Write soon please.”

Cornell explained, “In planning our graduation trip from Northwest University, I wanted to go backpacking in Europe but we felt it was a better use of our talents and money to go to Burkina Faso with our friend and see how we could help versus a trip for our own pleasure. Since that decision we have been blessed to help and have had many trips to Europe. That one moment in time was a defining moment in our lives. Were we going to live to help people or just for ourselves? The best decision we ever made was to serve others.”

KPMS eighth-grader Thayne Jonathen Wate wrote his pen pal, “I would love to meet you. You could visit. I have a couple of questions. You could come over and I could ask you them and you could ask me your questions.”

Today, the nonprofit has 1,000 kids in three schools across the three villages it partners with. It is funded by families in the Northwest who generously sponsor these children’s education through child sponsorship for $30 a month.

“Sadly, we only have 300 of the 1,000 kids sponsored,” Cornell said. “What makes our partnership with the Red Barn so special is that the Red Barn kids are writing letters to the kids who are not sponsored and thus don’t get letters from their sponsors.

“Child sponsorship helps not only cover education, but also medical care, school uniforms, school lunch and a relationship with someone in the U.S. who encourages them to know they can overcome all their challenges in life. The kids at the Red Barn are providing a most crucial part of what’s missing, a relationship with someone who believes in them.”

Those interested in also sponsoring a child can visit

To encourage a child, mail a letter to, P.O. Box, 563, Port Orchard, WA 98366. For info, call Cornell at 360-602-0038 or 360-731-7484 or email

WILTI’s website is

Hugh McMillan is a longtime contributing writer for the Gateway. He can be reached at